2020 minus 70: Punch & Judy? More like Abbott and Costello

Posted: 23 October 2019 in 2020 minus, politics, q&a
Tags: , , , ,

So, we had Prime Minister’s Questions today. Or, more formally, “Questions To The Prime Minister”.

I’ve written about PMQs several times before, and even posted a transcript of my livetweeting of “The PMQs that never happened but should have” six weeks or so back.

But, yes, I’m writing about it again, with another take on it: why it may be tinkered with every so often, but why it’ll never be fundamentally changed. Not now.

Quick bit of context, though.

In a parliamentary system, where the executive is formed from the legislature, then the way they’re held to account is two-fold:

The first and certainly more important, though less well known or appreciated, is by the system of select committees. Every department has one attached to it. MPs, usually about a dozen of them are on the committed, usually in proportion to their numbers in the House of Commons. It’s chaired by an MP elected by their peers, again usually in proportion to the numbers in the House. So most of the committees are led by Tories, some by Labour, some even by SNP MPs. They get ministers and civil servants, representing that department, in front of them and subject them to questions, trying to hold them to account for decisions the government has made, the effects of a policy, and sometimes the unexpected consequences of that policy.

Sometimes, rarely, this actually achieves something. A minister torn apart by a select committee doesn’t tend to last very long. And it’s not unknown for a government policy, ripped to shreds by a select committee – either in person or in a written report – to be amended or even repealed.

The Prime Minister, by the way, not representing a department, doesn’t face a departmental select committee… but a committee known as the Liaison Committee, a committee made up of the chairs of all the other select committees.

(However, this is one committee whose sittings tend to be anything but consequential.. PMs tend to regard it as an annoying occupational hazard, and don’t expect anything that happens there to truly matter. They’re rarely incorrect in that. And, to be fair, they wouldn’t get to be Prime Minister if they weren’t used to avoiding questions and/or people trying to hold them to account.)

The other way ministers are held to account is in the Commons itself (or the Lords, but that’s a whole other thing, so let’s just ignore them, eh?) when they face questions from MPs and are supposed to answer, but rarely do.

That’s unfair. They answer questions. It’s just not unknown for the answers to be to entirely different questions, to the questions the minister wished had been asked. And they happen every couple of weeks or so. Treasury Questions, or Environment Questions. Or Foreign Affairs Questions. Sometimes the Secretary of State will answer the questions, sometimes a junior minister with specific responsibility for a policy area.

And the same thing applies to Prime Ministersm in theory.

OK, so Questions to The Prime Minister (ok, I’m going to call them PMQs from now on, since that’s how they’re commonly referred to) take place on a Wednesday.

Way back when, when the UK maintained the polite fiction that a Prime Minister was merely ‘first among equals’ – the ‘prime’ minister, but no more than that – PMQs were a far more leisurely affair.

A question would be asked, and occasionally, the PM would even designate another minister – with responsibility for that area – to answer for them. So the PM would be asked about the government’s recent tax rises, and the Chancellor would answer.

Bbut mostly the Prime Minister would languidly answer the question asked in a way that signalled the mild astonishment that the PM should actually have to explain themselves.

Back then, PMQs took place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for two, fifteen minute, weekly sessions. The Leader of the Opposition got three questions, the leader of the ‘third party’ (for most of the 20th century, that was the Liberal Party/Liberal Democrats.) got one.

In 1997, however, on coming to power, Blair changed the format; it would now be a single session, thirty minutes long, the Leader of the Opposition would get six questions, the leader of the third party, two questions. Again, at this time, it was still the Liberals, or the Liberal Democrats as they’d then become.

By then, of course, PMQs had morphed into something familiar to watchers now.

A clash, a battle, a Q&A (or Q&A-to-something-else, that bit hasn’t much changed), between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Under Speaker John Bercow, that half an hour has stretched out, and it’s usually around 45 minutes now, but it’s been almost an hour on occasion.

That can be split, roughly, as follows:

  • Five minutes of introductory questions (usually, one tory, one labour)
  • Fifteen minutes of Leader of the Opposition questions (what most people think of, when they think of PMQs)
  • Seven or eight minutes of the third party leader’s questions (these days, the SNP)
  • And the remainder with backbencher’s questions, just under half an hour of those

And after all these changes of format, has anything really changed in the past forty years, say?

Not much, no. Oh, the format has changed a bit. Used to be that all questions would be two parters. The first part would be on the order paper, and the MP would just say “Question 6, Mr Speaker”. That question would be something asking the PM to list their engagements for the day.

Since the previous six questions had all been the same, the PM would respond with something like “I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.”

The MP would then stand and ask the question they actually wanted to ask: “does the PM think the latest unemployment numbers show his government is utterly fucking useless?” Or something like that, with less unparliamentary language, at least.

That was pretty much abandoned a few years ago as well. And now, MPs are just listed on the order paper as going to ask a question, without the question itself there. MP gets called, they ask the question they want to ask. (Or in the case of backbench MPs of the same party, the question they’ve been fed by the government: ‘Would the Prime Minister agree that the leader of the opposition smells? or “would the Prime Minister agree that the government is on the right course?”)

Now I’m a heretic: I’m still of the opinion that PMQs should matter; it’s just been a very long time since I’ve thought they do.

I recall Tory leader William Hague, who regularly ‘won’ the clashes when Tony Blair – no novice at PMQs – was PM, commenting that the sessions matter little outside the Houses of Parliament but are important inside; it didn’t matter so much if you weren’t excellent at them – either asking or answering – but if you were utterly crap at them, you were finished.

Well, Jeremy Corbyn put the lie to that some time ago.

He’s much better than he once was; but it took years to get there, and in ‘ye olde days’, his dire performances at PMQs for well over two years would have meant he’d have been replaced.

He’s still there, you note.

But what do they accomplish?

Honestly? Not much

Not much at all.

Corbyn has turned them into five questions you can basically ignore; he regularly lost the clash with Cameron. he came out about evens with May (because both were utterly awful at it) and it’s too early to tell with Johnson though Corbyn did well today. But Corbyn’s. turned his sixth question into a mini-speech, hitting the lines that do well on social media, and the clips are released to the faithful minutes later.

So, if it’s so bloody useless as an event, and it never accomplishes what it’s supposed to, then why don’t we do away with them?

Well, every Leader of the Opposition comes to power as PM having promised to reform them. Cameron pledged to do away with the ‘punch and judy’ style. And he tried… for about three weeks, before he got fed up of trying to be polite, while others took chunks out of him.

But why won’t they at least change to do exactly that: remove the punch and judy stuff?

Two questions there:

Why won’t they ever really change?

What are the excuses they offer for not changing?

The simple answer though is: because no one wants them to. Not enough, anyway.

No, really, no matter what backbench MPs say, and no matter how often ministers and Prime Ministers later say they hate PMQs, it’s still their moment in the spotlight, their moment to squash their foes. And if they didn’t manage to this week, then there’s always next week.

There’s tradition, that word always trotted out when people are desperately searching for a reason not to do something, whether it’s amend PMQs or ban fox hunting, and for the same reason.

And there’s parliamentary inertia; to change something in parliament, without the support of the party leaders, takes forever, is complicated and rarely occurs.

And there’s always the One Question per session, the one serious question asked by a backbench MP, about a disaster, or a constituent in trouble, or a local employer that’s failing… the House falls silent. The MP is heard; the PM stands, slowly and carefully. The tone is serious, the compassion offered is often fake-but-looks-sincere, the House hears the PM in silence.

That’s the ‘cover’; that’s what MPs point at, and protest: ‘See? That’s what PMQs can be. That’s what we can get it to, so it’s always that serious, that important.”

They’re wrong. They don’t even believe it themselves.

And most of them don’t want it to change, because there’s still a small part of them that thinks ‘it could be me asking the questions, the eyes of the House, the eyes of the nation – hey, I never said they’re realistic – on me… hell, it could be me answering them.”

Why won’t it change?

Well, you raise a very interesting point. I’m extremely obliged to you for doing so. And I refer you to the answer I gave some weeks ago.

Next question!
 
 
Something else tomorrow…

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